“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.“
F. Scott Fitzgerald
I read that Fitzgerald quote in a book by Roger Martin, The Opposable Mind. So often we hear of the two opposing views – the economy OR the environment, the ‘trade-offs’, the land or the river. How many times have I heard that “you can’t be green if you’re in the red” – God how I hate these Eichmann cliches and all the faux nodding-head pomposity of the stuffed shirts thinking they’ve just said something oh-so-effing-deep. I’ve heard economists simplifying an incredibly complex world – a shifting murmuration of life, connection and meaning – (watch this starling murmuration video – you will not regret it, I promise) – reduced to “rational economic ‘man'”, asocial, utility maximising, equally powerless within the confines of the ridiculous model. I dare you to watch the video link and treat it as an ‘objective’ observation, to suspend your feelings, to not imagine what emotions these woman felt within themselves, or the feeling of connection they had.
This is life. It is no machine. It is so many things within one thing. You cannot predict it; why would you want to. So see it for what it is, hold all these opposable ideas and treat it as a whole – and as parts – as holons, parts and wholes together. Like Janus, looking both ways.
You can never truly ‘know’ these things by simplifying and describing this incredible beauty – life’s murmuration, a city’s murmuration, a community’s murmuration, a river’s murmuration, the land’s murmuration – as a set of resources, nouns, cogs, machine parts, ‘rational’ emotionless utility-maximising material forms.
So dive deep and swim long, and feel. Synthesise. Create. Look for the other; there is always another, something else there. It’s best not to analyse for a while – at least until you get the sense of the whole. Procrastinate if you must, start broad – synthesise – then dig deep in analysis after. Let it come. Feel the connections. Look for the verbs all around you. The way the sheep move, the exposure shift, the soil depth and moisture change, the way the land forms and will keep forming – run a time lapse forward in your head to what shapes this place may have ten millennia hence, sense the meaning of its shapes, the weather rolling through a landscape to which it is a part, the music around, the way the water shifts, the dancing and shifting of everything.
Malcolm Gladwell says, if you’re going to read a business book, forget it. Read The Opposable Mind instead. Integrative thinking. Moving beyond trade-offs and competitive either-or analysis into linked systems synthesis. Think co-evolution, competing and cooperation as both meaningful realities, co-development. See things as more than one thing, through more than one lens. Do a Leibniz and view London from scores of positions, each with a different shape and meaning – monads of the mind – opposing objectivity and subjectivity. Don’t simplify a complex whole into a monochromatic two-dimensional cardboard cut out, with no grey.
If you are taught science, we tend not to ask how we ‘see’ some complex thing. We are taught to measure, analyse, experiment, describe. Oh, the humanity … or lack. Often it seemed to me we were being taught to mould bricks of information supposedly to build Saint Pauls – but without any wider concept of St Pauls – its light, the acoustics of the choir.
How we ‘see’ entities; what multiple meanings and functions they have, is a vital first step to understanding. If you ‘see’ a river as a single function ‘drain’ then all sorts of nonsense ensues. If you ‘see’ a street as a place for car flow rather than a common for walkers and kids; if you see a cathedral as only so many bricks; then you will design it in a certain way, and you will lose all the other values that you. just. cannot. imagine.
The quantitative pursuits are at great risk of blinding themselves to this complexity of life; science, engineers, accountants, economists, financiers. Engineers get the worst rap, but I’d rather an engineer who creates useful infrastructure than a financier who creates useless derivatives (what was that thing the neoliberals assume about ‘utility’?). And the engineers at least have the opportunity to feel the land and community face to face, not 28 stories up in a Tower worshipping Mammon. They are attempting to solve problems, to do good, with the intention of a better world. Feel free to judge based on whether people are at least attempting to do good for the world or just practicing a bit of rational economic utility-maximising greed and exploitation for their own selfish ends. I’m very comfortable with that. So, a qualitative difference between the scientist and engineers, the non-neoliberal economist, and the vampire squids of commerce.
I’ve worked with some very good engineers who ‘saw’ the world as multifunctional, with multiple meanings. They embraced the art within themselves. They see the murmurations in life. But I have also worked with other engineers whose myopia was the size of a small mountain (the myopic mountain is rather a conflicted metaphor, but you know what I mean). Straighten and channelise the ‘drain’ to improve that one function; argue against the limitation of heavy traffic use on the iconic community & aesthetic space connecting the cafe’s and the shops with the beach front because they saw nothing other than “this is the shortest distance between the port and the fertiliser works.”
We so desperately need broad and deep thinking systems thinkers in these spaces. Unfortunately in our new Age of the Robotic Functionaries the ones that have been promoted tend to be the “focused” makers of drains from streams and superhighways through the Arcadia they cannot see. Then they refer to those ‘below’ them who think in systems as “they’re everywhere!” Meant in a derogatory way, naturally.
You cannot be wise unless you can connect, unless we can synthesis. We tend to promote the disconnectors.
Bloom’s revised taxonomy of knowledge puts synthesis – creation – at the top. There is a reason for that. Synthesis is about integration; not just seeing the multiple meaning of the ‘thing’ you observe through the lens of theory, value and meaning of your mind, but being able to do things with those often opposable meanings.
Synthesis at the top. Not simple comprehension or the remembering of facts; the episteme of Aristotle. Not the ability to apply; the techne of Aristotle. Not analysis; the segregation and simplification of a problem into parts. Not even evaluation. Synthesis, bringing things together, seeing something – a river, a piece of land, a community, an economy, a history, a future, a set of values – as linked in subtle and shifting ways. This is the practical wisdom (phronesis) of Aristotle, necessarily embedded within a culture that knows the difference between useful infrastructure and a useless financial derivative. It is also embedded within a concept of the adaptability and conditionality of what emerges when the starlings fly – a pattern, a form, a shape, a dance – and then … nothing but air. A murmuration as metaphor. The connections and influences on the whole to which we belong, and which in turn makes us who we are.
Creating something new – being able to work in a ‘transdisciplinary’ way – break out of the old paradigms and mechanical reductionist world views. Look at the world as an irregular complex adaptive integrated system, not as a machine of cogs and wheels always governed by regular Newtonian formulae. It isn’t just material and hard head stuff. Feelings and values matter. We are not, nor ever should be, Spock – especially the grasping greedy selfish version of Spock the neoliberal economists presume we are.
This is what we keep talking about. The need for integration, belonging and synthesis. This is our future – not more dis-(dys??)-connection of nature from culture, economy from nature, individual from individual, individual from society, economy from culture.
Not more damned Modernity. Synthesise. Recognise that we belong in more than one space simultaneously. You don’t even have to go as far as Blake – the universe in a grain of sand – to appreciate the connections we have, the multiple meanings, the oneness of it all. The river runs through it.
Enough of rivers. Think about the bigger place. Appreciate that the way to a particular goal or goals may not be the apparently direct path – the building of the big factory- the river as a drain or barge canal to be straightened (rivers again) – the street as a roadway for cars – the land as a ‘commodity’ producer – water as a production input; the hard blueprint ‘resource-led’ dehumanising and extractive form of development. The great synthesising thinkers knew this: the Manfred Max-Neefs, the Schumachers, the Schweitzers, the Jacobs, the Campbells and the Mumfords.
There is a better way; a lasting way, a creative way. It may be we get to our goals by belonging, seeing values beyond dollars and utility, appreciating our ancestors, our duties to them and our children to come, to certain virtues and vices. It may be we achieve by the ‘indirect strategies’ (4th generation thinking) of creating justice and freedom – not the ‘hard’ neoliberal ‘freedom’ of the powerful with pond-scum-virtues to exploit ourselves and the commons to which we belong, but by – perhaps – creating the semi-anarchic decentralised, devolved freedoms of Adam Smith’s village, living in their culturally-integral bioregion. It may be we do it by raising those values, hopes and dreams of communities whose people are filled enough with life to laugh and dance and sing and share. God forbid, de Tocqueville’s democracy!!
The mechanical way is a nine-day wonder that fails because it cannot see and integrate the greater whole. It sees neither in the dimensions of space, nor within time, before and to come. It sees no Dances with Wolves (another murmuration – dance) – only the man ‘cog’, and the wolf ‘problem’. It cannot Think Like a Mountain.
The mechanical way sees the world as the darkest shadow in the deepest cave, as a philosophical child, short-sighted, narrow, technocratic and incommunicative, non-dialogic and dogmatic in its fear and compensating arrogance – its Ozymandias ego making up for the hollowness it feels inside.
How do you open the eyes of the Ozymandiases to see the dance?
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
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Mountains of the sea. What do you see? What nouns and verbs, what past and future, what threats and hopes, what fleeting beauty, what music, what dance, what movement murmurations, what depths, what parts, what wholes, what holons?